Friday, January 16, 2015

A Shibboleth Fail



When interviewing people for jobs or meeting people for the first time, I have been know to quietly use shibboleths.

I once worked on a floor in which an office door claimed that the people behind it were representing International Harvester. For reasons I will not go into, I doubted the claim and believed they were actually a CIA front operation. Travel agencies, public relations shops, and farm equipment sales are perfect front operations and have been used for that purpose by the CIA before. E. Howard Hunt of Watergate fame, for example, was working for the CIA when he was employed at a travel agency front owned by the brother of my across-the-street neighbor.  In Washington, D.C., where I reside, not everything is always what it appears. The fellow living in the next block may turn out to be a super traitor. The bird-watcher living across the street from you may turn out to be a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and a former Secretary of Defense. Welcome to my actual neighborhood!

In this instance, I bumped into the head of the putative International Harvester office in the bathroom on the floor we shared. I chatted him up. Very informal. Weather. Politics. Government sales. Almost as an aside, I asked if he might know Irma Harding. He did not. "Ah well," I said, "a grand gal back in the day," and I let it go. The fact that he did not know that Irma Harding (I.H.) was the Betty Crocker and Sara Lee of International Harvester was telling. It did not tell me everything, of course, but it told me enough! Over the next two years that office door changed titles twice but the people behind it stayed the same. Not everyone needs a weatherman to tell them which way the wind blows.

Another Shibboleth example, but this time with a different result.

Here in Washington, politicians and administrations are like neap tides, dragging up both the wonderful and the foul alike. Every administration has pretenders hanging about, and separating out the solid citizens from the pretenders is not always done with a glance.

I once did a very big national event with the Clinton White House, and as part of the setup for that event they sent over a fellow to do a walk through with me of the room, the security, and the staging. I did not know this fellow, and he did not know me. When we met, I casually chatted him up and almost sleepily asked him if he happened to know Jerry Bruno over there.  It was a very soft and non-probing question -- as casual as a flicked cigarette butt. "Jerry Bruno hired me," he replied. "Ah," I said. "Then you understood the question?" He smiled. He did. And because it was a shibboleth he understood why I had asked it, and we both understood a great deal about each other immediately. Jerry Bruno, you see, was not someone you might bumped into in the halls in Washington -- he had been the advance man for John F. Kennedy in 1960 some 35 years earlier.

I had asked a Shibboleth.  He had countersigned, and as a result we both knew we were professionals.

In the world of dogs, we also have shibboleths. I wrote a bit about that back in 2011 in a post entitled Cutting Sign in the World of Dogs.

So how can you spot the folks driving a little faster than their headlights?

One simple method is to ask blind questions that sound innocent and unimportant, but which illuminate quite a lot if answered the wrong way. You can learn a lot by asking the right questions and thin-slicing the answers you get back.

If someone claims to be an expert in a working breed and claims that coat or nose color is important, they have told you a lot. If they do not work their own dogs, they have told you a lot. If they do not know the true history of their own breed, they have told you a lot.
In answering a comment about yesterday's post, I was reminded that in the video embedded in that post the presenter tells a story towards the end about a question she was once asked.

What was amusing to me, as I noted in the comments, was that the presenter was unaware that she had been asked a shibboleth, or what her answer had revealed.

Asked whether she would reject a proven worker that was a bit ugly or put together wrong for a looker of unknown value, she said she had been a bit flummoxed by the question. It would depend,  How ugly was the dog that was put together wrong?

In fact the question asked was a shibboleth.

Everyone who really works their dogs knows that if a terrierman owns a kennel of 15 dogs, 14 of which are stunners, and one of which is small dog with an undershot jaw, it is the small one with the undershot jaw that is doing most of the work all winter long. The lookers may be nothing more than summer show stock and puppy producers for cash-rich rubes. The small ugly one, however, is being fed solely for what it DOES and is.

The little undershot dog is not redundant or she wouldn't still be holding her seat -- which means those 14 other "lookers" aren't doing may not be doing too much because they are not up to snuff for one reason or another.

This story is so oft-told in the world of working terriers, that to set up the question is to post a shibboleth.

A true terrierman would recognize the shibboleth and reference it, but a pretender would think it was a genuine question and stumble around trying to answer it.

Guess which way this shibboleth fell?

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